Lessons in love

The thing about recovery, and stopping eating disorder behaviours, is that it brings stuff up. It leads you to re-evaluate your life, the life lived in the shadow of an eating disorder. It makes you question everything, especially if you had an ED for a long time, like me. How much was my life shaped by my ED? Who am I without it? Who do I want to be?

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And with Valentine’s Day approaching, my thoughts turned to love and relationships.

I have spent my life “failing” at love. Everyone round me encouraging me to couple up, find a partner. But feeling uncomfortable about it, being fiercely independent. Struggling and often unhappy when I was in a relationship, but not really knowing why.

So, I went back to the beginning and started looking for the reason.

If I’m honest, I didn’t have much in the way of good examples when it came to relationships. I would describe my parents’ marriage as tempestuous. I never really saw my grandparents together, and my aunts, who I saw a lot, were both widowed.

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I escaped into books as a child, into wondrous alternative realities. When I was reading, the world around me didn’t exist. But those books and fairy tales fed me lies about love and romance, about knights in shining armour coming to girls’ rescue, about love at first sight, great romances. And crucially, they didn’t say what happened next.

I had no idea how relationships worked. But I knew I didn’t want one that involved a lot of fighting. So I went along with what my partner wanted. I stopped having opinions, I “put up and shut up”, and in the process, in each of my relationships, I lost who I was. If I even knew who I was in the first place.

Because what else could I do? Let the guy get to know the real me? The greedy fat pig who binged every time their back was turned? That would have been a disaster. No way was I going to let that happen.

There’s an awful lot of talk these days about loving yourself. It’s mooted a lot in the body positivity community. It’s not a concept I grew up with, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a big ask when we’re surrounded by constant messages telling us we’re not good enough unless we buy product x or y.

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I’ve never loved myself, and I doubt I ever will. Love is a strong word. I accept myself as I am now. Most of the time I like myself, but love? No, not really. But I don’t see that as a major obstacle. It hasn’t prevented my recovery, and it certainly didn’t stop me from loving those I have had relationships with in my life.

No, the barrier wasn’t that I didn’t love myself. It was that I believed no-one else could. That I was unloveable. Worthless. A fat, ugly, overemotional mess who sometimes had thoughts so dark I didn’t dare speak them out loud.

And so I spent my relationships second guessing what my partner wanted. Never revealing my awful, true self. Becoming more and more unhappy, increasingly lost, until they gave up and went off with someone else.

And because that was what I believed about myself, I struggled to accept love. I never noticed when someone was interested unless they actually told me. I’m ashamed to say I even dumped a couple of men who came across as too keen. They were clearly suspect if they were that into me – their judgement was flawed.

So this is what my experience has taught me:

You don’t have to love yourself to have a successful relationship, but you do need to feel worthy of love.

And you know what? I think that’s something I can achieve.

I don’t know if I will find love again, but if I am lucky enough to be given the chance, I will not hide who I am. That person will get to know the real me. The me who still struggles with dark thoughts and bad body image sometimes. The me who gets bad tempered when I’m tired and in pain. But also the one who has found the joy and self-acceptance I never thought was possible. And I hope they will feel able to show me who they really are in return.

Because maybe that’s the love I was missing out on all along. If only I’d felt worthy of it.

Whether you’re single, in a relationship, or still working on feeling worthy of love, Happy Valentine’s Day!

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